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My background is mathematics and am trying to learn some science in my spare time. In university we had mathematical physics courses such as EM and QM, but I didn't devote much energy towards them as I had no understanding of the experimental motivations for the given axioms, so it just felt like going through the motions of making calculations rather than gaining an intuitive understanding of the natural world.

So over the years I try looking at physics textbooks (eg. Griffiths for EM), but it's basically the same thing. A few pages of brief historical summary here and there followed by laws (Maxwell/Schrodinger/etc.) followed by calculations for the remainder. Obviously the mathematical consequences of the laws are important but it's the same situation as before.

Of course these textbooks primarily exist to serve the university system where there is a need to train students for industry or as research assistants in a short space of time, so I understand the choice of material. But I wonder if there's any better texts available for people who want to focus on gaining an understanding of the scientific method that lead to our current understanding. I know there are plenty of physics history books, but I imagine most require knowledge of the contents of the standard textbooks to get the most out of.

I don't need to see excruciating detail of theoretical developments from the time of ancient Greece (eg. History of Mechanics by Dugas), but are there any relatively comprehensive texts (including calculations) that present a 'spanning' set of experimental accounts that lead up to the theoretical model?

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    $\begingroup$ So you are looking for a suggestion for text books on physics emphasizing the experimental evidence, and build the theoretical counterpart from that? Obviously there are many out there. You want one that does or does not give an historical account? Any particular sub-field of physics you are looking for? $\endgroup$
    – rfl
    Oct 4, 2021 at 11:55
  • $\begingroup$ Hi, I am indeed looking for any suggestions for textbooks emphasizing experimental evidence. I'm just getting started so I was thinking of EM/QM/SR. I'm interested in the history, but I don't really have the time to read hundreds of pages containing all the obscure dead ends for a single sub-field. $\endgroup$
    – moko
    Oct 4, 2021 at 12:21
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    $\begingroup$ Why was this closed as opinion-based? It's resource recommendations, and with very good motivation. You might as well label the whole of "resource recommendations" as opinion based. $\endgroup$ Oct 4, 2021 at 15:56
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    $\begingroup$ As for the question, I think we could all do with more of the experimental motivation for physical laws. It used to be more common to ask, "what experimental verification do we have for Maxwell's equations? What alternative explanations are available, and why are these discarded?" Obviously, we have hundreds of years of experimental results and predictions based on some laws, so absolute answers are not always feasible, but knowing why we accept certain things as physical law and what arguments exist against them is critical to being a rational physicist. Especially where QM is concerned... $\endgroup$ Oct 4, 2021 at 16:01
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    $\begingroup$ I have to say I disagree strongly with the closing for "opinion based". It seems quite in line with other resource recommendation questions and AFAIK it is not a duplicate. I have voted to reopen. $\endgroup$ Oct 5, 2021 at 11:54

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I'm just getting started so I was thinking of EM/QM/SR.

Dover Publications do some books on the history of physics including :

This is going to sound a little odd if you are thinking in terms of books, however Wikipedia has many pages on the development of various subjects which are good starting points and a good place to start exploring the development of these subjects from.

So pages like :

I suspect what you are really missing that a full time physics student would be generally required to do is experiments in the lab.

Normally a physics student at B.Sc. level would be required to complete lab work duplicating (or at least similar to) many key experiments in physics as far as that is practical. This does tend to connect you to the theory in a way that reading and abstract problem solving usually does not. So reading about this history and key experiments may not be quite enough.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for the recommendations, I will take a look. For seeing experiments in action I will have to settle for Youtube for now. :) $\endgroup$
    – moko
    Oct 4, 2021 at 15:36
  • $\begingroup$ YouTube is better than trying to squeeze around a single table with the rest of a class, IMO. :-) $\endgroup$ Oct 4, 2021 at 15:41
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Your question contained your own answer

there are plenty of physics history books

What you are looking for is the history of physics, and as you say there are many such books available.

The problem that you are running into is that history books are not about learning the physics, they are about the history. A historical investigation is a very inefficient way to learn about physics because history is filled with many false starts and wrong turns. Investigating these is essential for learning history but distracting for learning physics. You will not effectively learn physics in that way.

What you should probably a do, if you want to learn physics with the historical context is to get a pair of textbooks, one on physics and the other on history. As you study the physics textbook, whenever you find yourself curious about the history, then skip to the relevant part of the history book. But always follow the order of the physics presentations, not the historical order.

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  • $\begingroup$ I totally agree with you that history of physics books aren't the place for learning physics. I just question whether the standard undergraduate physics presentations skimp too much on the experimental motivation due to education system constraints (including the need to teach undergraduate students mathematical techniques as mentioned in another answer). $\endgroup$
    – moko
    Oct 4, 2021 at 11:59
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This is a long comment on the subject.

If you keep following the site you will see that the majority of questions and answers are on these lines, i.e. assuming that a particular theoretical model forms the data that can incidentally check the validity of the theory. Few people are grounded on the fact that physics theories are just using mathematics to model data and observations so that there could be predictions for new data and systems.

As I have been working with experimental particle physics since the 1967 my answers are grounded on the observational side, and I try to remind that all physics theories are based on extra axioms and postulates derived from data and observations; that the theories were built on them in order to fit the data and give predictions. See this answer of mine and this.

I have decided that people interested in physics are of two types:a) those mathematically inclined and believing that mathematics creates reality, whom I call platonists, and those who believe that observations and measurements are described by mathematics with extra axioms, which I call pragmatists/realists. :) See also this and this..

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